For the past 15 years, Phil Mickelson has brought drama, high-wire unpredictability and heartache to the final moments of the U.S. Open. This time, he is way ahead of schedule.
As he returns this week to Pinehurst No. 2, where his poignant quest for his personal Great White Whale began with a 72nd-hole defeat to Payne Stewart, Mickelson enters in the middle of a new episode. He is dealing with questions from the FBI in an investigation into insider trading.
Several times since agents interviewed him during the Memorial tournament, Mickelson has denied any wrongdoing and stopped there. "I really can't go into it right now, but hopefully soon,'' he said this week at the FedEx St. Jude Classic.
But that in itself is another subplot for the golfer as he chases the one major championship he needs in order to join the Mount Rushmore of golf as a winner of the career Grand Slam. The Open is the tournament in which he has finished second or tied for second six times starting with that 1999 weekend at Pinehurst.
It was only natural that he would be asked, as he was on Wednesday, if he is concerned about the investigation's impact on his sunnily positive image. And it was just as natural that Mickelson would reply, "Well, right now, I'm just trying to win a U.S. Open.''
The national championship always has its own breadth and heft, even without Tiger Woods, who is missing his second major of 2014 because he is recovering from back surgery. While nothing can compensate for the absence of Woods -- the only active golfer to have won the career slam -- there are distinctions about this Open:
It will be the last one telecast by NBC, which lost the contract to a massive bid by Fox and is planning a special signoff on Sunday. It will be the first to be followed by the U.S. Women's Open on the same course. Mike Davis, the executive director of the U.S. Golf Association, has said that if there is an 18-hole playoff Monday, it will begin at noon -- and the women will be allowed to practice on the course that morning.
There will be other story lines, such as Adam Scott's pursuit of a second major, the continued development of 20-year-old Jordan Spieth (who held the lead at Augusta on the final day) and an array of hopeful qualifiers, such as Long Island's Matt Dobyns, the head pro at Fresh Meadow Country Club.
Still, there is no getting around Mickelson's return to the course that has a statue of the late Stewart, who in 1999 took Mickelson's face in his hands and told him what a good first-time father he was going to be.
"I don't think Phil Mickelson has a malicious bone in his body. I know he doesn't,'' said Paul Azinger, who will work the Open on ESPN. Azinger also knows Billy Walters, the professional gambler who has been identified in the same FBI probe, adding, "I think the feds have been after Billy Walters for a long time.
"I like Phil Mickelson. I trust Phil Mickelson. I believe everything Phil Mickelson says as far as that goes,'' Azinger said, referring to the investigation.
Johnny Miller, who will be announcing an Open for the last time for NBC, said Mickelson has a more immediate concern. "It's the short putts that are haunting him, I think. As a golfer, [if] you're playing pretty good and you can't get that ball in and another guy is getting up and in from everywhere, it really wears you out,'' Miller said.
In an odd way, the U.S. Open could revitalize Mickelson. Despite all of his angst-riddled finishes, he said that it is the one major in which he has played the best, aside from the Masters.
This will be his week to overturn the memories of the wild tee shot on No. 18 at Winged Foot ("I am such an idiot,'' he said back then, in 2006), the bogey on No. 17 at Shinnecock Hills in 2004, the stumble down the stretch at Merion last year.
"With the distractions coming into this U.S. Open, who knows what's going to happen, but Phil has been incredibly resilient to distractions throughout his career,'' said Golf Channel analyst Brandel Chamblee, mindful of how Mickelson returned after a long hiatus when his wife Amy was diagnosed with breast cancer and nearly won the 2009 Open at Bethpage.
He fell just short, tying for second. When USGA officials were undecided about who should receive the runner-up's medal, Mickelson readily deferred. He said, "I'm good.''
Winning the U.S. Open, for him, would finally be great.